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Generals should shut up on international disputes

ARMED Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana in a phone call disputed the headline of my column last Monday that said he “lied on new illegal structures” at Union Banks, where Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef is.

He said the headline left him seriously distressed: if he were in the Philippine Military Academy and if it was proven he lied even on a minor matter, he would be immediately dismissed.

What he said, he claimed, was that a Philippine Air Force patrol had “documented manmade structures that were built on some of the features” but didn’t say these were new or when they were built. These structures are illegal, Sobejana said.

I won’t waste my time explaining why most media, including myself, were prodded to report his discovery as new illegal structures. Suffice it to say that even the US-based high-tech firm Simularity Corp. — ironically, the firm whose photos first disclosed the presence of 200 fishing vessels at Julian Felipe — spent thousands of dollars securing satellite photos from two different agencies to verify or confirm whether there were indeed new structures.

Simularity of course didn’t find any: the Vietnamese and Chinese structures were built mostly in 2013, the colossal blowback to the Yellow regime’s filing of its arbitration suit against China. Beijing in effect told the Philippines: “You’re accusing us that our reefs should be vacated since they are mere uninhabitable rocks? Fine, we’ll transform them into islands.”

This Sobejana episode though only emphasizes what President Duterte should order his generals and the belligerent-sounding National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea to do: shut up on our disputes not just with China but with any country in the world.

A general, worse, a general heading the entire armed forces of the country claiming that the Chinese and Vietnamese structures at the Union Banks area where Whitsun Reef is, are illegal sends the same belligerent get-out-or-we-will-shoot-you message from a detachment of Marines sent to keep order in a protest demonstration.

Can you imagine the impact of a People’s Liberation Army high-ranking general saying that the Philippines is violating China’s sovereignty? For the US, Defcon 3, “Increase in force readiness above that required for normal readiness.”

It is not the job of a military man to understand the intricacies of disputes with other countries. Indeed, Sobejana declared in his press release, “The Law of the Sea gives the Philippines indisputable and exclusive rights over the area.” But that was mouthing what the Yellows, including the current foreign affairs secretary have been saying. The reality is that while the Philippines arguably has such rights over the area, as it is within our exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Vietnam and China claim the same area as being within their sovereign archipelagos.

Didn’t Sobejana and the rest of the Yellows in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) wonder why all these years we haven’t protested against those structures at Union Banks as well as in over a dozen features, or the even bigger facilities that Vietnam has built in those features it has been occupying since the early 1970s, or China since 1988?

Territorial disputes have been the single most common cause of war among nations since ancient times. The second most common is the scramble for natural resources.

We have to be very careful and cautious in dealing with these, and not just follow the propaganda line of the likes of Antonio Carpio and Albert del Rosario, whose central motivation I suspect is to pressure China into allowing the ambitious enterprise of three oligarchs to explore for gas and oil in the Reed Bank.* These three are Indonesian Anthoni Salim (in whose First Pacific firms del Rosario has been a longtime director), Enrique Razon and Roberto Ongpin.

We forget even the most recent history. It was when those three oligarchs’ seismic survey vessel was driven away the Chinese in 2011 from the Reed Bank, that Benigno Aquino 3rd started his nearly hysterical and belligerent stance against China. Carpio three months after gave a five-page secret memorandum to del Rosario proposing the solution was for the Philippines to file an arbitration suit in an international body invoking the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

To justify such a suit, Aquino provoked China into a stand-off at Scarborough Shoal by sending the Navy’s biggest warship there. The US then fooled del Rosario into ordering our vessels there to withdraw, surrendering Scarborough to the Chinese, as it were, forever.

What the generals and our incompetent DFA do not understand is that governments, even the one-party state in China, cannot ignore their people’s sentiments. At the height of the Scarborough stand-off, Weibo, China’s biggest social media, was flooded by demands from young Chinese to send the People’s Liberation Army to invade the Philippines. A widespread slogan was “to kill the chicken (us) to frighten the monkey (the US),” the latter being seen as the anti-China superpower using the Aquino government as its proxy in Asia.

If that outrage by the Chinese public again breaks out — i.e., “why do we allow this puny nation we’ve even given life-saving vaccines to to order our fishermen out of our territory?” — the Chinese leadership will take a hardline stance again, as in the Scarborough Shoal stand-off.

We are so amateurish, even diminishing the nation’s integrity, compared to China in our handling of this Julian Felipe episode. The only Chinese officials commenting on the dispute is the Chinese ambassador (and only when he was “ambushed” by the media in a public event), an unnamed spokesman of the embassy, and finally by the spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry, and only when he was asked to during his regular press conference.

In our case, we have the Foreign Affairs secretary who blabbed and tweeted, the Defense secretary, his undersecretary, the chief of staff of the Armed Forces and the Armed Forces spokesman. We’re ridiculous.

If Aquino were in office today, he would have screamed “what is ours, is ours,” while asking the US president for assurances that the American military would defend the Philippine Navy.

We’re fortunate we have a more mature President, who apparently has a gut feel for the intricacies of foreign relations.

*See my column of July 22, 2020, “Two oligarchs triggered our quarrel with China.” It was only recently in research for my book on the South China Sea dispute that I came upon information that the former Marcos top technocrat Roberto Ongpin has 30-percent direct holdings in Forum Energy, which had been Salim’s corporate vehicle for his ambitious project to extract gas and oil in the Reed Bank. Container and casino tycoon Enrique Razon, on the other hand, has a 30-percent stake in the contract (Service Contract No. 72) to extract gas and oil in that area.

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